In an interesting development, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is currently working with a Russian biotech firm to ‘bio-print’ chicken nuggets for sale in some of its shops. The base ingredients appear to be animal cells grown from chicken cells combined with plant material to reproduce the processed chicken meat used in conventional chicken nuggets.
The tastes are conferred by seasonings in the flour usually used to coat the nuggets before deep frying. The initial target market appears to be Russia, where they hope to get approval for sales over the next two years or so.
This is probably a good development in the production of ethical foods; i.e. foods that have a minimal or zero impact on the environment. Meat grown in the laboratory are known as biomeats and are considered a much more humane way of acquiring animal proteins as no actual animals are harmed during production. Hence greenhouse gases emissions are reduced by as much as 25 times as feed does not need to pass through the digestive systems of animals where such gases are produced.
Land use is cut by 100-fold along with much reduced energy and water consumption. And of course, there would be no need to use antibiotics or growth hormones during production. Apart from capital costs and changes to some farming practices, there are few downsides to the production of certain kinds of biomeats. But this applies only for certain kinds of biomeats.
The major downside of biomeats is usually texture, especially if one tries to grow complex meats such as beef or pork. That is because the muscles that form meat in larger animals tend to develop as a result of attachment of protein fibres to joints and bones via tendons and other sinews. Without such tissue structures, it is very difficult to mimic the formation and hence texture of meats. Hence that is the probable reason why KFC is only pursuing the production of biomeat nuggets for the present as nuggets have a bland sawdust-like internal texture and the flavours are derived mostly from the seasoned coating. One probably would not be able to know the difference.
Next generation food
Oddly, it may actually be easier to recreate the texture and tastes of animal meats using wholly plant-based materials. There are more options available to modify the structures of plants and fungi. These are what I termed as ‘Ultra Modern Foods’ (UMFs) in my earlier series as these foods are constructed via processes quite removed from natural or normal cultivation practices.
UMFs are derived from processing plant proteins, starches, fats, genetically-modified compounds into verisimilitudes of familiar-looking meat products. And we now have a new generation of UMF foods which I will term ‘Next Generation Foods’ or NGFs for convenience – and they are coming to a place near you soon.
The speed of advancement in NGFs is staggering as it was only recently that the UMF technology required to simulate the basic flavours of animal meats from plant-based components was developed. Many companies involved in NGFs are still in the start-up stage but it is only a matter of time before the majors also move into this segment, as they have done with UMFs.
The big difference between the NGFs and many of the older UMF products on the market is the way the plant ingredients are layered/structured in NGFs. Currently, most “veggie” steaks and burgers in the supermarkets are basically mashed/minced-up plant proteins bound with food mucilage, then shaped into the conventional contours expected from meat products (eg, sausages, burgers, mince, etc).
This is usually done using low and high-moisture extruder machines in a crude attempt to reconstruct the texture of meats by varying the density and moisture in the product. Therefore many versions of veggie meats tend to look like lifeless bland shapes which often look somewhat unappetising on the dinner plate.
However, NGFs are different; with added colours, layers and forms, they can even visually resemble real meats. NGFs are bio-printed with separate distinct layers of plant-based ingredients with different textures to simulate the look and mouth feel of meat, plus the tastes of muscle, blood and fats.
Varying the layers and thicknesses of the plant ingredients can mimic the textures of different cuts of meat, so it would be feasible to reconstitute the flavours and tastes of distinctive cuts of meats without the need for convoluted stages such as ageing, smoking, curing, etc. Such products will also not be contaminated by antimicrobial compounds and growth hormones. And if things go well in the development of NGFs, then production times and costs will be much reduced, provided the base plant-based ingredients are readily available.
Achieving the correct balance of textures, colours and tastes in a NGF is no easy task. There are several techniques for creating NGFs via 3D printing technologies, though details are scarce due to commercially-sensitive reasons. Some start-ups in Spain and Israel even envisage the day when restaurants have their own 3D food printers to allow chefs to design and create meat-like gastronomical dishes – in effect, creating unique culinary sensations for their customers. Those days are some time away but it is not implausible that it will be feasible within the next five years or so.
At a basic level, the requirement for making a good NGF is to use a mix of vegetable proteins, vegetable fat and water to reconstruct the very fine muscle fibres of meat via a micro-extrusion machine. These fibres are then micro-extruded into a matrix resembling muscle tissue. Once the matrix of such NGF fibres achieves the required density/thickness, then alternate layers of NGF fats are layered on top to mimic the textures of fatty tissues in meat.
The inherent colours, odours and flavours of meat and fats would have been engineered into the mixes used for the micro-extrusion machine, possibly complemented by plant compounds such as leghemoglobin (derived from soy plant roots) to simulate the bloody myogoblin of meat. The final end-product should be a product which looks, tastes and even “bleeds” like meat, and possibly even smells the same.
The production process is necessarily slow as meticulous precision 3D printing is needed to produce the fine filaments of protein fibre and fats needed to replicate meat; at present the current expectation is only around 10 kilos of NGF “meat” can be printed per hour per machine. Saying that, it take 36 months to produce around 300kg of beef, six months to produce 70kg of pork and between 8 to 12 months to produce 23kg of lamb. So, as a comparison, a NGF 3D printer running continuously can produce the meat output of a pig in less than three days and the same amount of meat as a lamb in a day.
A new future
Another potential market for NGF printers would be butchers, supermarkets and other food retailers. There is a commercial logic to bio-printing NGFs which one should not ignore. For a start, there is much less need for refrigerated transport and storage. Bio-printing food on a daily or even hourly basis (depending on the speed of the 3D food printers) based on actual demand cuts down wastage and spoilage significantly. The use of plant-based components also reduces considerably the risk of bacterial contamination which is dangerously prevalent with meats, and in general NGFs should keep longer regardless of refrigeration.
And of course, if the world can totally cut out the consumption of real meats, then it will eliminate land pollution/deforestation of millions of hectares of land, reduce water tainting for billions of people and substantially reduce environmentally damaging greenhouse gases. For example, the planet would have eight billion tonnes less CO2 added to the atmosphere per annum. However, this will never happen in our lifetimes as there are far too many interests invested against this.
Still there are encouraging signs. Even a traditional meat-loving country like Germany now has a higher percentage of vegetarians amongst young people than any other country in the EU, and the number of flexitarians there continues to grow significantly, more than doubling from 2010. The sales of meat substitutes in the country have grown from €80 million (RM394 million) to €222 million (RM1 billion) a year now since such foods were generally introduced in 2013.
NGF meat is currently not available where I live in France but I have had the great pleasure to taste several high-quality UMF burgers in London last year. Honestly, I can say I preferred them to any real burgers from the usual vendors. They were succulent, tasty and completely guilt-free – and they even went down well with claret. I am now looking forward to enjoying a NGF steak, hopefully soon.
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